Breaking Free of "Good Food, Bad Food" Talk

(Note: This post originally appeared in my article, “Way Eating Is Not About Morality: Calling on Yoga to Emabrace Your Innate Goodness,” in Integral Yoga Magazine.)

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To eat it or not to eat it? How many times a day do you bump up against this question (or one like it) in your mind as you navigate what, how, and when to eat? You are not alone if you experience moments of confusion or turmoil about nutrition, for we find ourselves embedded in a culture that complicates the definition of food and connects what we eat with our moral identity.

Morality, by definition, is concerned with the principles of right and wrong behaviors and the goodness or badness of human character. Right and wrong, good and bad, and the many-layered meanings of these words have been applied to food, turning the act of nourishing our bodies into an issue of morality.

Many of the morality messages about food lean more toward convincing us that we are powerless—void of willpower—than powerful. If we buy into the “powerless” narrative, we can become overly tuned in to marketing messages and other sources that promote confusion, guilt, and shame around eating. As a result, we may become preoccupied with what the foods we choose say about our moral self-worth. From inherited food beliefs to marketing, from “fat” talk among friends and even strangers to “thinspiration” memes and images on social media, we are regularly exposed to messages insistent that the moral fiber of human character depends on “food willpower.” The core message goes something like this: Depending on what and where we eat, we are either good or bad, disciplined or indulgent, virtuous or sinful, guiltless or greedy.

The more we rely on external messages to monitor our “goodness” or “badness,” the less connected we are to our personal power, our inner knowing, and our appetite for food and all things in life. And the more we are attached to defining ourselves through words like good and bad or our perceived food “successes” and “failures,” the less available we are to cultivate our dynamic nature and gifts.

Yoga philosophy teaches that we have everything we need inside of us to tend to all of life’s moments, from the happiest to the most challenging. When we slow down, get quiet, and pay attention to our personal wisdom, we can gain tremendous clarity about what we need to improve a situation, make a decision, or solve a problem. This also applies to feeding ourselves. When we intently listen to our inner wisdom, we can gain tremendous clarity about the nature of our hunger, the sensation of fullness, and more in sync with our body’s natural rhythms and needs. The more we can choose to let go of morality language about food (and also make efforts to eliminate it from our inner dialogue and conversation with others), the more internal space we can create to tune inward and intentionally attend to our hunger with confidence.

Considering the oversaturation of moral messages surrounding food in almost all facets of society, it can be challenging to untangle our moral worth from the food we consume. Our Yoga practices offer powerful opportunities to study how morality language around food influences our self-esteem, body image, and general beliefs around eating. These practices also offer us a dedicated space in our day to begin integrating new language about food into our inner dialogues so that we can begin to free ourselves from the suffering associated with beliefs that confuse our moral integrity with our natural right to nourish ourselves.

To get a baseline for how morality language influences you, we invite you to take a few minutes for self-study:

(1) How does morality language influence how you view certain foods and eating them? (2) What morality food rules or code do you follow?

(3) Where did you learn these rules or this code?

(4) How do they influence your body image and self-confidence?

n the spirit of Yoga, remember to observe your answers to these questions without judgment. Consider what this short self-study exercise revealed. If you bumped up against disempowering thoughts, notice them, breathe, and offer yourself compassion. Commit to one small shift you can make to ease the tension morality language about food creates in your life, perhaps integrating a mantra or affirmation into your inner dialogue as a way to kindly talk back to disempowering thoughts. Examples might be: I trust my body. I know best. I am self-aware. I embrace my appetite. I am worthy.

You can extend this mantra practice by bringing it into your asana practice as a way to wire in this kinder language and foster affirming beliefs about your innate goodness, which is completely unrelated to the food you eat. Repeat the mantra or affirmation as you hold a Yoga pose or move through a series of them. You might also combine a mantra with the rhythm of your breath as you hold a Yoga pose. For example, as you inhale, say “I am unique.” As you exhale, say “I am unique.” Choose words that are meaningful to you and channel your innate goodness and affirm your worth.

These types of practices may already be familiar to you, and we encourage you to apply them to enhancing your relationship with yourself where food is concerned too. They will also help you reconnect with your inner world, offering you time and space to listen to your thoughts, notice your appetite, and appreciate the sacred act of nourishing your body. You deserve to enjoy your food, eat with ease, and trust in your innate goodness.

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Adapted from the book, Body Mindful Yoga, by Jennifer Kreatsoulas, PhD, and Robert Butera, PhD. Reprinted with permission from Llewellyn Worldwide.